It’s hot and dusty amid the tree stumps and the intermittent squawking of a chainsaw punctures the steady growl of heavy equipment, but Jules Campbell is focused on skiers ripping through this forest next ski season.
“It’s fun to think about your turns all summer long,” said Campbell, a ski patroller at Aspen Highlands who doubles as one of a dozen sawyers at work cutting the glades and runs in the Pandora’s expansion of Aspen Mountain. “Right now it looks pretty scrappy, but this is what progress looks like.”
Aspen Skiing Co. plans to open Pandora’s “as soon as the snow allows” in the 2023-24 season, according to Mak Keeling, vice president of mountain planning for SkiCo. This summer’s work includes installing the new lift and cutting approximately 18 acres of trees from national forest lands and 15 acres from private lands.
“We have two goals,” said Campbell. “One, come home safe. Two, improve the skiing.”
To facilitate the new terrain expansion that will add 153 acres to the ski area on the upper east side of Aspen Mountain, Pitkin County and the U.S. Forest Service approved clearing up to 106 acres of trees for gladed and traditional ski runs. This will require cutting an estimated 4,226 tons of timber over three years; the project is now in its second construction season. It’s the first major expansion at Aspen Mountain in decades and introduces intermediate glades to the ski area.
Critics of the expansion have long said improved skiing isn’t worth the environmental trade-offs, including cutting trees and pushing ski-resort infrastructure farther into the backcountry.
“They’re engaged in a logging operation, and that’s not good for the environment, period,” said Marcella Larsen, whose family property is adjacent to the project area.
The Pandora’s expansion, which was approved following contentious hearings in 2021 after facing a denial vote from Pitkin County commissioners in 2018, is subject to permitting, environmental requirements and inspections from both Pitkin County and the U.S. Forest Service. For the project to proceed, Pitkin County rezoned 167 acres of public and private land — 132 of which were classified under the restrictive rural and remote designation — to ski recreation, which is the zoning that covers most local ski areas.
That change, Larsen said, has meant industrialization and truck traffic that degrades the backcountry experience and wildlife habitat.
Paul Andersen, a local author and former newspaper columnist who urged Pitkin County commissioners to deny approval for the project, still maintains that it was “wrongly conceived.”
“Cutting thousands of trees for the recreational benefits of the elite few is symbolic for Aspen’s disavowal of individual responsibility toward climate change,” he said.
While SkiCo accounts for fuel and energy use in its sustainability reports, which are published about every two years, it does not measure the climate-related impacts of landscape modification projects like Pandora’s.
“It’s a morass,” Auden Schendler, SkiCo’s senior vice president of sustainability, wrote in an email. There is no reliable way to account for the carbon-related costs for things like cutting a live tree versus a dead one, or how revegetation might offset those impacts, he said. “The numbers are totally unreliable.”
Plus, Schendler said, spending time on convoluted carbon accounting distracts from the company’s focus on advocating for fixes to larger climate issues.
Pitkin County and the Forest Service each have permitting processes for the project and conduct regular progress inspections. Keeling also sends weekly reports to neighbors about traffic on Midnight Mine and Little Annie roads.
The government agencies overseeing the project have not produced written inspection reports, but county and the Forest Service representatives said that SkiCo has not violated any environmental requirements and works cooperatively to minimize damage.
The project calls for logging up to 50 percent of trees in areas that will become intermediate glades, and 33 percent in more advanced terrain. There will be four traditional ski runs, which require clear-cutting.
“We’re doing far less than the prescribed amount of cutting right now,” Keeling said.
Crews are focusing on removing dead, diseased and fallen trees, and just enough healthy trees to make the gladed sections skiable.
“What we’re trying to preserve is a mosaic of different species and different age class,” said Monte Lutterman, who oversees recreational projects on local ski areas for the Forest Service. “We select for dead and diseased first, and the subalpine fir is declining on that part of the hill.”
A 2015 report funded by the U.S. Forest Service found that, “Subalpine fir decline has killed more trees in Colorado’s high elevation forests than any other insect or disease problem.” Sawyers are also removing Engelmann spruce, Lodgepole pine and aspen trees. The project area does not include Douglas firs, which are afflicted by beetle infestations at lower elevations and tend not to grow above 10,000 feet.
In the Pandora’s project area, there are places that Keeling described as a “rat’s nest of dead trees.” Crews are using drones to map plans for tree removal, and Keeling said sawyers, many of whom are also ski patrollers, use their expertise to cut as few trees as possible while making the glades safe for intermediate and advanced skiers.
“There’s a bunch of spots where we don’t even have to cut a live tree for certain sections of the glades,” Keeling said. SkiCo plans to remove more trees next summer, so the glades might be in denser forest in the first season than in those that follow.
For now, logs are piling up in staging areas, waiting to be taken out either by logging truck or helicopter. SkiCo used helicopters to clear out the trees removed from the liftline in 2022.
“In traditional liftline projects in the past, people would bulldoze their way down the liftline and really do a scorched-earth technique,” Keeling said. The use of helicopters instead of log-skidders helps prevent soil damage from skid tracks and can lead to faster revegetation.
After the trees were cut, SkiCo ground down the stumps with a masticator and spread wood chips along with specialized seed mixes tailored to the area’s soil type, elevation and aspect. New vegetation is sprouting in areas that were cleared last summer.
On clear-cut ski runs, SkiCo is using a shorter grass mix that Lutterman says will cut down on maintenance like mowing in the summer and fall and may require less water than other native grasses.
This construction season, SkiCo plans to use helicopters in August and September to fly in concrete for eight of the lift tower foundations, as well as to bring in the lift towers and remove cut trees.
“It really reduces impacts to be able to fly concrete as opposed to driving it to every tower location,” Lutterman said. “To get a concrete truck to every foundation of the tower, they’d really need to build a heck of a road.”
Concrete trucks will use work roads to pour the foundations for five of the lift towers.
As construction proceeds, Larsen and other critics of the project acknowledge that SkiCo works to minimize impacts to the backcountry.
“They’re doing their best but they’re doing a bad thing,” Larsen said. “At the end of the day, this is not a positive move, unless you only care about recreation.”
Elizabeth Stewart-Severy I Vail Daily I July 29, 2023